April 18-23, 2017, was my first visit to Vermont and thus my first entry here that is not a retrospective. I landed in Boston and drove through New Hampshire to encounter Vermont during the glory that is “mud season,” the aptly named part of spring when all but a few congealed crusts of snow have liquefied into an ugly brown slurry. Mud season’s equally appealing fall antipode is called “stick season,” that suicidal time when the trees have shed their blazing leaves but haven’t yet been furred with snow.
Nevertheless, I felt an affinity to the Green Mountain State, perhaps because I have about four centuries of blood in the patch of stony northern soil with points at Quebec City and Trois Rivieres, Quebec; Hartford, Conn.; Plimoth and New Bedford, Mass.; and Windsor, Vermont. I share DNA with bones in numerous Congregational and Episcopalian churchyards, and in the Catholic cemeteries of Quebec. I felt at home driving through the age melted mountains spiky with pines and hazy maple skeletons. Someone asked if I was from Vermont, and I replied that my relatives had fled social unrest years ago. It’s a true story; they were burned out of Royalton by the British.
I had three purposes in Vermont: check it off my list, volunteer on an Icelandic sheep farm, and attend an open house at Vermont Law School.
Hestholl Icelandics is a farm sketched upon the ridges and one flat valley along a dirt road, about ten miles outside of Burlington. Red-tipped quiescent maples stood interspersed with birches on the old and quiet hills.
Images from the farm: the scent of hay. Crunching noises of feeding horses. A muscular and friendly barn cat. Wool greasy with lanolin. Sheep’s milk from thin line hissing into Mason jar straight to cold brew coffee.
The farm is owned and operated by Jill Merkel. After majoring in anthropology, Jill developed a love for Icelandic horses … which led eventually to a farm populated with Icelandic sheep, dogs and chickens. The farm with its yellow U of a house/sheep pen/garage/hay storage holds a bit of transplanted Iceland. Jill’s husband, David, works in IT in Burlington … and maintains an extensive collection of paperback science fiction and fantasy, including such deep cuts as Fred Saberhagen and Tanith Lee, whom I encountered as part of a science fiction book club when I was fifteen, sometime in the last century. Does anyone remember Tanith Lee? She wrote an especially racy scene between the demon protagonist and his human lover. Kids today and their sparkly, abstinence only vampires.
My first day was April 19, 2017; it didn’t so much start to rain as the gray sky began sifting moisture. The next day, an opaque wall of the mist sat on the sloped pasture. The atmosphere was milky, like ground down oyster shells, pearly. The days were about 50 degrees. April 21 was still pearl gray, but the wind picked up, and I borrowed the first puffy jacket I’ve worn since 1987 or so. Later, the sun didn’t so much appear as the air brightened, and silver limned mud puddles and car windshields. On April 23, my last day, attenuated gold fuzzed the mist, and individual dots of dew sprang out.
Hestholl Icelandics has about 25 ewes, 11 lambs, and five rams. Contrary to advice I had received, sheep have personalities. Familiarity with anything breeds detail and discrimination. First, the individual animals were just different facets of a sheep herd, a solution of sheep. Over five days, they clarified into separate particulates.
Sif had caught herself in a fence as a lamb and now had an ingrown half horn. Her lamb was overly quiet. Old Blossom was retired from milking and lambing, and she walked around the first pasture to green, her brownish wool tattering off her. There were two mother and daughter sets, and you could tell them apart by the springiness and shine of their wool. Youth does glow. White-horned and obdurate Maga had a brown lamb with a black twin. Lara’s black lambs wriggled and butted their mother’s pink bag to start the milk, then wagged their tails in ecstasy. In the barn when the light caught their faces, they had lustrous and glassine eyes like a grape in a 18th century still life. And…they certainly were not that stupid; Bailey, the escape artist, even knew not to be dissuaded by the hay I dragged on a plastic toboggan but waited by the food bowls for the alfalfa cubes and protein pellets. “People think sheep are stupid,” said Jill. “They don’t know sheep.”
On this trip, I was able to combine sheep care and feeding with a visit to Vermont Law School. On the drive from Richmond to South Royalton, tufts of mist caught the prickle tops of pines. In Waterbury, water flushed white over the granite, angry at the unyielding stone. Granite outcroppings marked the median of I-89 where the interstate builder had dynamited the mountains 50 years ago. The clouds didn’t really disperse the whole time I was there. They would raise into an oyster-colored ceiling or lower into mist, but there was no blue-eyed sky as in Texas or California.
The only law school in the state, VLS has the reputation of being the best environmental law program in the nation. Its campus did not disappoint: the cafeteria serves only farm-to-table sourced food, and the charming buildings have been retrofitted with composting toilets. Other modern amenities: a turret room that can be reserved for massage and/or breast-feeding, a study lounge that provides a therapy dog during exam week, and a gym that checks out kayaks.
Checking into the Open House, I looked at the attendees and thought, “oh good, there are some returning students my age.” They were actually in the category known as “parents.” Poundsign, old; pound sign, I ain’t letting it get to me! Grandma Moses didn’t even start painting until age 78, and the Colonel was sans Kentucky Fried franchises until over 60. The tour and the presentations were informative and an ideal length; a professor even gave a brief class on how to analyze case briefs. For lunch, I had pretty much the best cheeseburger, ever, at the Worthy Burger.
I have grown increasingly interested in the environment ever since I started scuba diving in 2007, and despite or because of having spent my life working for the one of the most voracious oil consumers, the Department of Defense. Maybe environmental advocacy awaits at the end of my journey? Maybe part of this journey through states and continents IS advocacy?
Corey is not quite an international woman of mystery, but is hard at work becoming a regional person of interest. Previously both a Classics Major and an Army Major, she is currently travelling where the road will take her and leaving digital footprints at http://www.greensunla.wordpress.com. Upcoming reports may include improving trails in Muir Woods, diving from a liveaboard in the Bahamas, flying military Space-A across the Pacific Ocean, and taking a month long cruise to Antarctica on a refitted Russian research ship. You may also check out some older writing at https://coreyschultz.contently.com/ or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.